Long ago I argued that legislating Wilderness represented a coalition of interests wanting lands to remain undeveloped along with a self-deception of how little humans had affected those lands. From the scientific side, capital-W Wilderness needs some serious rethinking. The ecological fantasy of wilderness I’ve discussed a few times cannot be the rational basis for setting lands aside. In this set of posts, I’ve looked at this from a far more personal angle, one perhaps more congruent with the real motivations of the Wilderness Act: what is it about wilderness that we–human beings–really care about? Why is the illusion of untamed nature so alluring? For wilderness, both with and without the capital W, is a human construct (indeed, it is mainly a Western concept if not almost uniquely American). Without understanding what sets wilderness apart from other experiences from a human perspective, we can’t really have a good discussion about what should and shouldn’t be in Wilderness. While my experiences are unusual if not unique, I think the lessons that can be drawn from them might be more general.
I would first exclude as a justification for Wilderness a very common use of Wilderness: that of outdoor gym. A place to set a personal best in running a trail or climbing a peak doesn’t need to be Wilderness. Maybe Wilderness can accommodate that (to some degree: I think we’d all agree that running a race the size of the Boston Marathon through Wilderness would be a disaster), but that isn’t the experience that defines wilderness.
Oddly enough, I’m not sure that communing with nature makes the cut either. Despite coal-fired railroad engines belching past the far side of Walden Pond, Thoreau could commune with nature well enough to inspire generations following him. Similarly, although Wilderness unquestionably acts as a valuable reservoir of natural genomes, we don’t select it for that, and other undeveloped lands and even some developed lands can provide that service, too.
I tend to object to postage stamp size Wilderness areas. Unless surrounded by unroaded areas or utterly lacking in trails and access, civilization is just too handy. While protecting such lands often has real value, the label should probably be different. “Natural Area,” “Wildlife Preserve,” or even “Scenic Reserve” might be more appropriate.
When I look back at my experiences, it is the isolation from ready rescue, from easy extraction and convenient resupply that separates wilderness from tamer lands. It is the immersion in that experience as well. Your nose is rubbed in your mistakes–you can die, in fact–and similarly your successes in extricating yourself belong to you and not the auto club or the 7-11 down the street. Your clever trick in hanging food from bears, or making a campfire with a single match, or setting up a tent in a pouring rain without getting the inside wet–these are minor accomplishments, true, but they are often personal successes unsullied by advice from the broader world. We all are cheered by our little victories.
There are places on the earth where similar experiences can be had with motorized transport (people die driving off into the deserts of North Africa and Australia, for instance), but those require huge expanses of unoccupied land. To have the same effect in the U.S., you need to be able to go far enough that you can’t trivially retreat or yell for rescue. The easier transport allowed in, the tougher it is to meet this demand. This is, to my mind, the firmest argument against bicycles in the Wilderness: it makes the remote less remote. Remote too is a signal characteristic of wilderness. I think this is also a good argument for not providing cell service in wilderness; we are increasingly reliant on quick Google searches or Wikipedia pages for knowledge, knowledge that evaporates the moment after we encounter it. Wilderness is to deeply understand things. Satellite rescue beacons are fine, I suppose: they are confessions of failure or encounters with profound misfortune, often in dire circumstance [when used outside of dire circumstance, as has happened, it is a confession of a different kind of failure]. It is the substitution of the global hive mind for individual problem-wrestling that I resist. We’ve shown that if we can access that hive mind through the internet, we will do that before switching on our own white matter. Wilderness, to me, is a place where you learn what you are capable of. It is certainly not the only such place, but it has its own special circumstance.
Undiluted, consequential self-reliance lasting a decent duration might be the essence of the human experience in wilderness. I don’t mean that you walk naked into the wild and try to survive (though some might choose that option). I mean your problems are your own. Immersion in that environment heightens recognition of that responsibility, which in turn helps to enhance your perception of your surroundings. When we first camped and feared bears, the crinkle of the tube tents brought our attention to what we could hear, and see, and smell.
You never know the challenges you might face. When we removed our seismometers in the autumn of 1988 from the Kern backcountry, two of us hiked in and packed everything and placed the boxes by the trail garlanded with neon orange flagging. Half Pint was chosen to take a pack string in and get everything out (and he was given pretty clear instructions on where that cabin up the Big Arroyo was). He managed to visit all six sites and get the gear on his mules. But when the return trail started rising up from the Little Kern River, he got bucked off his horse. But he held on to his mule string, and while the horse taunted him by staying just out of reach, HP had to walk along, leading his mules. Nothing pains a cowboy more than walking after being unhorsed, but getting the gear back was his responsibility; his challenge that day, that only he could meet, was to keep hold of the mules and plod up to the pack station, following his horse. I rather suspect HP picked up a few lessons that summer.
Any of you who have read this probably have your own views. Everybody probably takes something different from their wilderness experiences. Just ask, as I have tried to in these posts, what was it about wilderness that was different from what you experience outside wilderness, in particular what specifically makes the difference worth elevating those lands above others. If you can do that, boil that insight down to its essence, and then use it as a guide for what should and should not be Wilderness, then at least any subsequent conflicts over Wilderness will at least be over essentials and not perceptions or proxies. And if, somehow, you have not been in wilderness for any length of time, I hope this helps explain why many who have been there want to keep it–even understanding that it is fantasy that these lands are untouched by humanity.
Lesson 4: There is always more to learn
While my influence on friends of a friend through my travels was unexpected, the one place we do look to be a guiding light is with our children. Having learned our lessons before parenthood, we hope to be that beacon of wisdom that can infuse our children with knowledge without the necessity of living through the same mistakes we made. While we all discover that our abilities in this vein are limited, it is usually because we aren’t heard or heeded. Even so, I don’t think things necessarily worked out the way I had planned when my younger daughter joined me for a llama-pack on the John Muir Trail…
I’ve spent months living in the backcountry, and while there are those who have had to deal with more severe situations (animal attack, major injury and the like), and there are those who’ve spent a lot more time in wilderness (rangers, packers, trail crews, some guidebook authors and some really serious aficionados), I’ve felt like after all that time and all those mistakes that I have reached a place where I am about as comfortable in the wilderness (well, at least the pretty dry wildernesses of the southwest) as anybody. And so on this trip I could show my youngest just how it is done.
Lesson 3: Connections
As both a scientist and educator, you hope to have an impact that ripples through a broader population. Your scientific insights help others to make new discoveries, your teaching to help students to improve their lives and that of others they in turn impact. Most of the time, you really don’t know how successful you’ve been. Science can lumber off in the wrong direction while you might have been on the right path (or, of course, vice versa). Former students might never be in touch, or worse, might tell you you failed (yes, I had this happen. Encountering a fellow working at a science museum, I learned he had taken my intro historical geology class. “Has that helped you in your job here?” I asked. The response was quick and blunt: “No.”).
I would never have thought that I might have affected others in any serious way through my pursuit of backpacking. And I would not have guessed I would have learned of such an impact through a murder. And yet, that is my tale to tell…
Lesson 2: Perseverance (part 2)
Well, after getting in position in the backcountry to do seismology and well on the way to recovering from the setbacks of losing helpers and the blocked trail, we now got to start doing what we had come here for: deploying these bulky old seismometers.
We decided that bedrock on the valley wall would be our best choice for this first station [we missed a much easier exposure of bedrock just north of the ranger station area]; this meant we pulled out our packframes, lashed the gear to the frames, and struggled up the scree at the base of the west wall of the canyon.
For the most part, things went reasonably well. We found a nice spot to dig in our seismometer (an L4-3D if you are wondering), the seismograph unpacked OK and would run. But then we finally ran up against a serious problem. We had to figure out what the time on the seismograph was. It had to be within about a hundredth of a second, or all our effort would be wasted as the experiment (seismic tomography) required accurate times.
[As a reminder, the seismometer is the instrument that actually detects and amplifies ground motion, in this case varying voltage in wires that go to the seismograph, which further amplifies the signal and records it, in this case on the reel-to-reel tapes.]
Lesson 2: Perseverance (part 1)
While many who enter the backcountry get to learn the need for self-reliance and preparation, far fewer get the opportunity to reach deeper. On a recreational trip, if things aren’t going well, you do as we did on my first backpack and turn around. Even Wild‘s Cheryl Strayed bailed on the super snowy Sierra. Of course some on a goal-oriented trip will persevere, but failure is an option. If a route up a peak is too hard, or conditions are too bad, there is always another day.
For others, the wilderness is their workplace. All the kinds of failures and successes we might have in our comfort-controlled offices with the support of colleagues and friends, they must create on their own with very limited contact from the outside world. Think wilderness rangers, trail crew members, horse packers.
My experiences were on the edge of all these. Most of the research scientists who work in wilderness are bioscience folks looking for ecosystems relatively untainted by human activity. Solid earth researchers are present too, though mainly geologists whose field areas happen to lie in wilderness. Most of these people don’t rely on much in the way of equipment. A geologist might have a rock hammer, a Brunton pocket transit, a field notebook and map (or, these days, perhaps a tablet and GPS unit). My work required several hundred pounds of equipment making it to remote places and functioning for months on end. So while I shared in the absence of contact with a broader community, the reliability and portability of my equipment exaggerated the issues a scientist faces in the wild.
While none of this compares with truly life-threatening emergencies, when things go wrong, you are stuck with the resources you have. Just how you deal with those reverses is the challenge wilderness places before you.
What is wilderness for? These days, it often seems to be a big outdoor gym, with folks trying to out-do one another on a time climbing a wall, running a trail, kayaking a river. While advocates for Wilderness Areas argue for a sort of spiritual renewal, is there anything there beyond recharging one’s emotional batteries or notching some personal best?
It seems a question worth asking in a day and age when we are revisiting what should and should not be allowed to go on in Wilderness Areas. To that end, GG is dropping the third person to talk a bit about personal experiences in wilderness that might be a bit different from expectations. This is pretty different from the usual fare here, both in length and tone, so consider yourself warned, and while the insights I hope to show in these posts could probably be distilled more thoroughly, I hope that the broader context of my (mis)adventures is of interest.
Much of the environmental and conservation community is furious over the reduction in size of several national monuments (not to mention archaeologists and paleontologists). Right now they are directing their fury into the courts, but given that a couple of Presidents had already reduced the size of some national monuments without controversy or opposition, one can question the likely success of that attack (and potentially its wisdom, as Congress might decide to revise the Antiquities Act to strip a President of the ability to act so broadly in the first place).
The President’s actions here expose a heresy that both advocates for and opponents of parks and monuments like to conveniently forget when rallying their troops: these lands are not protected forever. They are only protected until elected government chooses to change its mind.
Take Yosemite Valley, which was passed to California in 1864 to preserve it “inalienable…for all time”. Arguably this was the single most ironclad act of preservation in American history. To remove that protection required an act of the California Legislature, an act of Congress and the President’s signature. That these restrictions were nearly removed suggests how tenuous legislative protection can be (California did pass such an act, overriding the Governor’s veto, and the House of Representatives passed the equivalent act–it was the Senate that denied passing Yosemite Valley land titles to Hutchings and Lamon). Arguably Yosemite Valley became less protected when passed back to the federal government in 1906.
Or take Yosemite National Park (the federally-run one established in 1890). It originally included the Ritter Range and Devil’s Postpile, but these were removed from the park in legislation passed 15 years later. (The Postpile was then preserved in 1911 by the creation of Devils Postpile National Monument, but it would take the creation in 1964 of the Minarets Wilderness (now expanded and renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness) to protect the Ritter Range).
Creation of national parks has largely stalled out. Every decade of the twentieth century save the 1950s saw at least 3 parks created; only four have been made this century, and only one small park (Pinnacles) was designated this decade. So maybe the time has come to revisit parks instead of monuments.
The lesson? The more layers you can wrap around protection, the less likely it is to be reversed. Having worked to make the case to Presidents Clinton and Obama to protect some of these places, monument advocates might be advised to carry those same arguments to Congress and seek park status for them. After all, they are still monuments, and as the promotion of Death Valley and Grand Canyon from monument to park was accompanied by an even larger footprint, so might creation of parks from these monuments restore some of the lands worthy of protection. These are harder fights: advocates have to convince half of the House and Senate these lands are worthy instead of just one President. But maybe this is the better path forward for the longterm stability of protection….